Is Being A Sommelier As ‘Chic’ As It Seems? | Vietcetera
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Apr 26, 2024
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Is Being A Sommelier As ‘Chic’ As It Seems?

Pairing spicy food with beer can create a heavenly combination, but mixing it with vodka might not turn out well. How can we nail the perfect match between food and drinks? Let’s ask a sommelier!
Is Being A Sommelier As ‘Chic’ As It Seems?

Ha Ngoc Huyen, Head Sommelier at AKUNA restaurant. | Source: Khooa Nguyen for Vietcetera.

Finding the right “soulmate” can enable both individuals to shine and grow together. This concept applies similarly to gastronomy, where pairing a dish with the perfect wine can enhance the dining experience, accentuating the strengths of both the food and the wine without overpowering the other.

Sommeliers master this art. However, due to the scarcity of professionals and the intricate skills required by this demanding profession in Vietnam, it’s not easy to encounter a Sommelier, even in a fine-dining setting.

Often dressed in a formal suit, pouring wine, and providing guidance to guests, one might wonder: Does the life of a Sommelier sparkle as brightly as their polished appearance suggests?

To uncover this captivating aspect of the culinary world, Vietcetera talked with Ha Ngoc Huyen, Head Sommelier at AKUNA restaurant.

Could you explain what a Sommelier does to someone who might not be familiar with the role?

Simply put, a Sommelier is like a “wine consultant” in a restaurant. They engage with you to understand your taste preferences and then recommend a wine that aligns perfectly with your palate.

To be able to tailor wine selections to individual customer profiles, a Sommelier has dedicated thousands of hours to studying a wealth of knowledge. | Source: Khooa Nguyen for Vietcetera

Think of a chef meticulously preparing dishes in the kitchen; similarly, the Sommelier crafts the beverage experience at the bar.

To be able to tailor wine selections to individual customer profiles, a Sommelier has dedicated thousands of hours to studying a wealth of knowledge on history, geography, grape varieties, alcohol content, storage techniques, wine regions, cultivation techniques, fermentation processes, and wine maturation.

Furthermore, Sommeliers are also responsible for managing a restaurant's wine cellar, which requires extremely meticulous storage and strategic planning.

For example, high-end wines, which may only sell one or two bottles over several months, require storage at specific, consistent temperatures to preserve their quality for extended periods. On the other hand, more popular wines that sell more rapidly must be maintained under equally stringent conditions. This ensures they are immediately available and in optimal condition when needed to serve guests.

For those who find wine too complex to comprehend, consider comparing it to Vietnamese fish sauce. Like fish sauce is crafted from fish, wine is made from grapes. Fish sauce varies in flavor, enhanced by different sugar, chili, and garlic blends for diverse tastes. Similarly, wine varies based on the grape, region, climate, cultivation methods, and whether or not it is aged in oak barrels, all contributing to its unique bouquet and finish.

Like fish sauce is crafted from fish, wine is made from grapes. | Source: Khooa Nguyen for Vietcetera.

Wine pairing is like the art of selecting the right fish sauce for a dish: specific combinations enhance different meals. The Sommelier's role is to find that perfect match, enriching both the drink and the dining experience.

What does ‘pairing’ mean, and could you give some basic principles for matching food and drinks?

Pairing is about “coming together as a pair" in such a way that neither element overshadows the other.

When you taste a dish followed by a sip of wine, you immediately notice how the drink brings out the flavors of the food. A well-chosen wine can enhance hidden flavors in a dish that chefs have intricately planned into their menus.

Take spicy food, for example. Consuming spicy dishes with vodka can intensify the heat, demonstrating a poor pairing. However, spicy food goes well with beer. Another example is watermelon. If a watermelon tastes bland alone, you can make it more refreshingly sweet with a small sprinkle of salt.

If one item in the pair dominates or negates the other, it cannot be called a pairing. Both wine and food must complement and elevate each other to achieve a successful pairing.

What are some common misconceptions people have about Sommeliers?

Sommeliers are often perceived as leading glamorous lives filled with the glittering allure of fine dining, indulgent experiences, and high salaries. However, the reality of being a Sommelier isn't always as glamorous.

Sommeliers are also responsible for managing a restaurant's wine cellar. | Source: Khooa Nguyen for Vietcetera

Behind the sophisticated facade of wine experts lies thousands of hours of reading, wine tasting, and, less glamorously, wiping and washing hundreds of glasses in the kitchen corner. These are the unseen moments where Sommeliers diligently labor for their brief moments of spotlight.

Moreover, the concept of “pairing” isn't fully understood by many. Diners often judge food and drinks as separate entities. Few recognize that the two can create a spectacular fusion of flavors and a memorable aftertaste.

Pairing is that “wow” moment of satisfaction experienced when the flavors of the food and drink seamlessly blend. The essence of a successful pairing remains in the memory of guests long after they've savored each combination.

What inspired your transition from a career in banking to becoming a Sommelier?

It all began in 2019 when I attended a brief training course in Australia. I was astonished to discover that three glasses of wine, all produced from the same grape variety, could exhibit such incredibly distinct aromas – from passionfruit and intense pineapple to the unique scent of green bell pepper. That moment was when wine truly captivated me.

Yet, what truly drew me deeper into the field was the “stories.” After consulting, each client shared different personal stories with the Sommelier.

What truly drew me deeper into the field of Sommelier was the “stories.” | Source: Khooa Nguyen for Vietcetera.

Every interaction, where we listen, share, and reflect on each other's stories, further enriches my life experiences. Like wine, people are composed of complex and rich stories, which makes them endlessly intriguing.

What role does a Sommelier have in a meal that doesn’t involve wine?

The restaurant offers non-alcoholic pairings for guests.

While these are typically fruit juices, not every fruit complements the chef’s selected menu. Therefore, the Sommelier steps in to “rescue” the taste experience by creating new non-alcoholic beverages tailored to the meal’s flavors.

At AKUNA, where I work, non-alcoholic drinks extend beyond simple juices. We might cook celery or employ infusion techniques to extract flavors from herbs such as cinnamon, star anise, lavender, and rosemary, aiming for the desired taste profile.

The AKUNA team creatively uses all the ingredients listed in the menu to craft the perfect non-alcoholic drink, ensuring it not only enhances the flavors of the food but leaves a lingering aromatic presence, creating a comprehensive and harmonious guest experience.

What’s the most popular pairing at AKUNA?

It's porcupine meat paired with a red wine from the esteemed Burgundy region in France, produced by an Australian winemaker. This wine is particularly unique due to the limited size of its region and the high cost of the wine, making even vineyard ownership there challenging.

The winemaker, an outsider, has forged deep relationships with local vineyard owners to secure grapes from the finest plots for this wine.

Source: Khooa Nguyen for Vietcetera.

Another one who shares a passion for embracing and refining the essence of the local lands is AKUNA’s Chef Sam, a Michelin-starred Australian chef. He is passionate about utilizing local ingredients, so he prepares the porcupine using Vietnamese components. This is a narrative I often share with our guests when making recommendations.

Considering the diverse palate preferences between Vietnamese and international guests, how do you tailor your pairings for each group?

From my experience, international guests often prefer a more acidic profile, while Vietnamese taste preferences vary by region and subculture. For instance, young guests from Saigon might enjoy sweeter wines with prominent tropical fruit aromas, mirroring their love for bubble tea.

On the other hand, guests from France might favor the familiar oaky notes of French wines, preferring drier wines without much sweetness.

As a Sommelier, engaging with a wide range of guests allows me to gather a rich tapestry of cultural tastes, enhancing my ability to tailor pairings. This approach is rooted in the classic pairing philosophy where dishes and wines from the same region naturally complement each other, creating a resonant and coherent flavor profile.

What’s your most memorable experience as a Sommelier at AKUNA?

An occasion that stands out vividly in my mind was a New Year’s Eve. That night, the restaurant was fully booked, and everyone was eager to watch the fireworks over the Ba Son Bridge from our spacious view. It was a night when the whole team was running at full speed.

Guests arrived at 6 PM, stayed to count down to midnight, and naturally, lingered to chat long after the fireworks. After the dazzling fireworks display, we offered them a New Year's champagne toast. Each course change meant a new glass, so in total, about 250 glasses of wine were served that night.

The most beautiful moments, however, came after the fireworks. The team hustled to clean up, wiping down the kitchen and washing dishes until 1 or 2 AM.

Once everything was cleaned up, everyone was famished. We headed to the canteen, grabbed a box of instant noodles and a pack of eggs, and took turns cooking. We ate standing up, not around a table, but huddled together in the pantry, slurping our noodles.

The first meal of the year, a simple bowl of egg noodles shared with my teammates after a long day, was filled with joy and camaraderie. That moment was truly priceless. It's the hours of hard work behind the glamour, rarely seen, and the pure joy of those moments that money can't buy.

That warm, communal atmosphere is a memory I will always cherish from my days as a Sommelier at AKUNA. Through challenges and shared experiences like these, our team has grown closer, stronger, and more united.